Ukrainians’ Race Against Time

(Photos courtesy of AP Photo/Emilio Morenatti, Aurel Obreja, Darko Vojinovic, and Markus Schreiber)

Russia’s war on Ukraine sent masses of refugees running for their lives from Kyiv, Kharkiv, and countless other cities and towns under fire from Vladimir Putin’s war machine.

During the first week following the invasion, estimates say that over one million crossed over Ukraine’s borders to Poland, Hungary, Moldova, and Romania. Some have already moved on to other destinations, but many remain in those countries. The United Nations estimates that in the coming weeks, three million others could leave Ukraine for other locations, a number that could fluctuate based on how the war takes shape. It is already the quickest migration of refugees known in history.

As indiscriminate bombing hit most locations in central and eastern Ukraine, finding passable routes has become increasingly difficult. Still, even after making it out of their hometowns, their journeys have not been easy.

Checkpoints, the need to avoid danger zones, and mass congestion have made what would have been a trip of a few hours into one that takes days.

Just as few Europeans believed Russia was about to engage in total war on Ukraine’s population, governments were not prepared for masses of refugees. An immediate result is people spending many hours, and in many cases days, standing in line or waiting in cars at border crossings in freezing temperatures with scant food, water, or other necessities.

Compounding the hardship they face, most of those who have made it out of Ukraine are women and children forced to leave husbands and fathers behind after the government issued a law that all men ages 20-60 must stay in the country and fight against Russia.

While unprepared, border countries and other European Union members have opened their doors wide to Ukrainian refugees, clearing barriers to entry and setting up absorption centers. Some, like Poland, took welcoming steps like allowing them to use public transportation free of charge.

EU members backed a proposal that will grant Ukrainians two-year asylum, work permits, and access to health insurance and other measures to help them in their new surroundings.

Still, the snap refugee population finds itself in strange countries having left their jobs, communities, possessions, and members of their family behind in a war zone, not knowing if they will ever return to Ukraine.

Amid this vast human tragedy are thousands of Jews who until recently called Ukraine home. Many plan to make their way towards Eretz Yisrael or other locations. Many others are caught deciding how far from Ukraine they should wander and where they will find the best prospects to normalize an extremely abnormal situation.

“They were not relieved, not joyful. They were tired,” said Rabbi Avi Baumol, who works with the Jewish community in Cracow, of a recent visit to a border crossing to Poland. “Some had been waiting for more than 24 hours, but there was no screaming or shouting. It was a mass of mostly women holding on to their children, waiting patiently in shock and in pain.”

Under Fire

Eitan Lembergsky was born in Ukraine and returned there about five years ago after spending a period living in Eretz Yisrael, and was living in Kyiv with his wife, Vika, and their 9-month-old baby. He was working with his brother, buying hair to produce sheitlach mostly for the Israeli market.

Last week, when Russian missiles hit a military installation near their home, the situation grew tense, but they hoped it would pass. On the second day of the invasion, Mr. Lembergsky ventured out to a store to buy groceries and saw a tank outside of his house and heard shooting not far away.

People walk next to a row of cars waiting to pick up family members and refugees fleeing the war in Ukraine, in Palanca, Moldova, March 2. (AP Photo/Aurel Obreja)

Seeing few reassuring signs, the Lembergskys packed a few suitcases and boarded a bus of Israelis and dual citizens headed for the Polish border.

Tuvia Edelman, a relative of the Lembergskys who is now hosting them in Berlin, said that the ramifications of the decision they made took time to sink in.

“They each had a suitcase and managed to take along food for the baby, but they thought they were leaving for a few days. It wasn’t until he got on the bus that it hit him that he might not be going back and that there were a lot more things he would have wanted to take with him,” he said.

Despite warnings from America to the contrary, few in Ukraine believed Mr. Putin would make war on civilians and bombard residential towns and cities. As such, most people stayed put until the situation became extremely dangerous.

Various organizations have been involved in arranging for transportation and lodging for those trying to run out of harm’s way. Since the invasion commenced, thousands have left on buses from all over the country heading west. Most buses get a military escort to try to ensure their safe passage towards the border.

Many more are left behind in the war zone who cannot leave for a variety of reasons, most of them hiding in basements and shelters with dwindling food and supplies.

Mr. Lembergsky’s mother is still in Kyiv, feeling that at her age travel is too hard. His parents-in-law are still in their small hometown, but the windows of their home have been bombed out. The situation is not only terrifying for those caught in it but adds an additional level of stress for those who have escaped it as well.

“They are in touch with them the whole time, always checking their phones for updates,” said Mr. Edelman. “I told them they should go out for a walk and start to get to know Berlin, but it’s hard for them to get their minds off of it, to move on and realize that there is nothing they can do to help at this point.”

Perilous Safe Havens

For many seeking a safe corner to rest on the way to the border or who are not able to leave the country, western Ukraine, where Russian bombs have yet to target civilian areas, has become a sought-after destination. Some rented homes or hotel rooms in the Carpathian Mountains or in northwestern Ukraine.

Lviv, the major western city, has been overrun with refugees, some on their way to the Polish border, others looking to wait out the war in a city they hope remains quiet.

Two Jews arriving at the Medyka pedestrian border crossing in eastern Poland (Wojtek Radwanski /AFP via Getty Images)

Rabbi Mordechai Shlomo Bald has led the Jewish community in Lviv since 1993. Since the start of the war, he and his family have been constantly occupied in servicing the constant arrivals of Jews seeking safety.

“Lviv is an ir miklat now. Thousands of people have passed through, maybe tens of thousands; it’s hard to know how many,” said Rabbi Bald. “We gave out thousands of meals and food packages, they all get taken and we have to make more, but the shelves are empty in the stores and we’re trying to get more supplies from aid organizations.”

“There are all sorts of people coming to Lviv,” he added. “We’ve met plenty of rich people that had businesses and who were prominent in their communities who ran away with nothing.”

Lviv is one of the tourist centers of Eastern Europe and is dotted with hostels and hotels. Still, with the city teeming with refugees, a room or even a bed is hard to come by.

“The hotels and people with space to rent are all overcharging, people are settling for the worst conditions just to have somewhere to stay,” said Rabbi Bald. “We put as many mattresses in the shul as we could for people who couldn’t afford another place or who couldn’t find one.”

Even in the “safety” of Lviv, military sites around the city have been bombed and sirens sent residents seeking shelter on several occasions.

Stalled on the Run

Last week, the Stoliner Rebbe, shlita, advised Rabbi Bald to send his younger children to Eretz Yisrael to stay with their married siblings there. Rabbi Bald and his wife accompanied them on the journey, intending to return to Lviv, but he did not anticipate how long the journey would take.

“It took us three days to get here. If things stay quiet in Lviv, I’ll go back, but after the trip I had, I don’t know how long it will take me to get back out if things get bad,” he said. “There are checkpoints everywhere, but a lot of them are manned by chayos with guns. There’s also looting going on, and it’s very scary to travel a lot of the roads … Nobody trusts anybody. Everybody is suspicious that you might be a Russian spy.”

A Ukrainian man rides his bicycle near a factory and a store burning after being bombarded in Irpin, on the outskirts of Kyiv, Ukraine. (AP Photo/Emilio Morenatti)

Between having to take circuitous routes to avoid shelling, getting through areas manned by overly zealous Ukrainian volunteers, and congestion from the masses trying to make it to border points, trips take days on end.

“It took them seven or eight hours to get from Kyiv to the Polish border,” said Mr. Edelman of his relative’s trip. “There are only a few bridges you can still use, and there are bottlenecks all over. At a lot of points, they were barely moving.”

Once people reach the border, things often slow down even more. On the Ukrainian side, one additional holdup are guards making sure able-bodied Ukrainian men do not leave the country.

“Every time they find a man on a bus, it slows the whole thing down. Everything can stop for a half hour while they check everything over,” said Rabbi Bald.

There are several crossings between Ukraine and neighboring countries, but most are built for a modest number of travelers per day and are now struggling to process tens of thousands.

“It’s gotten a little better, but people have been waiting by the border for days,” said Rabbi Baumol.

Miles-long lines of cars sit for days until they run out of fuel. Many mothers and children that came with cars abandon their vehicles and trudge for hours towards the border.

There are many buses and trains running from several locations to border crossings, which bring their own travails.

“In a way the panic of war is scarier than the war itself; you have people running without direction, packing into trains like sardines,” said Rabbi Bald. “When people go into survival mode, they lose themselves very quickly.”

Once refugees make their way to lines by the border, the wait can still take a very long time under trying conditions.

“We went with some volunteers to hand out food and water, candy for kids. A lot of these people have been standing for 15 hours or more in the freezing cold,” said Rabbi Baumol.

The Unknown

Simcha Demarsky was advised also by the Stoliner Rebbe to move from his home in Kyiv to western Ukraine a week before the invasion, and on the day the Russians began their assault, his Rebbe told him to leave the country. Leaving earlier than most, he had a relatively easy time getting to Budapest, where he and his wife and three young children spent Shabbos. Mr. Demarsky was also fortunate to leave before the law restricting men from leaving Ukraine was put in place. From Budapest, the family flew to New York and are now staying with friends in Monsey.

A convoy of buses about to leave Odessa.

Even if his journey sounds less harrowing than what others went through, his life is now an unknown frontier.

“We’re in a state of disbelief,” said Mr. Dembarsky. “Nobody was thinking that such a thing would happen, and we are still not really sure what is happening.”

In Kyiv, Mr. Dembarsky owned an internet sales company with 80 employees, which in a moment ceased to exist.

“There is no market for anything now. People are running from bombs and trying to save their lives; they are not buying anything,” he said.

They left behind most of their possessions in their Kyiv home, and their car is still in Budapest. With them in Monsey are only a few suitcases and a lot of uncertainty.

“I’m not up to thinking about whether I’m going to look to send my kids to school here or things like that,” he said. “There’s too many other things to do first.”

Rabbi Bald is still unsure of when or if he will be able to return to his home in Lviv. With him in Eretz Yisrael are only a van’s worth of bags. Aside from a lifetime’s worth of possessions, gowns for his daughter, who is a kallah, and the rest of the ladies in the family are still at a Lviv tailor.

The uncertainty over whether refugees will ever return seems a universal unknown. Yet with many fearing the country will either be turned into a perpetual war zone or a state of Russian military occupation, there is much skepticism.

“I heard a group of people asking whether they brought documents to prove their ownership of some expensive apartments. I asked them if they’re planning on going back. Bashfully, they answered, ‘Maybe one day our grandkids will go back and be able to claim them, so we want to have the paperwork,’” said Rabbi Bald.

Mr. Edelman said that Germany, as well as Berlin’s Jewish community, have done their best to make his guests and other refugees feel welcome. When he went to pick up the Lembergskys from a train arriving from Cracow packed with Ukrainians, German police were on hand handing out chocolate eggs with small toys inside them to children. Volunteers were on hand to offer coffee, food, and water.

Members of the Jewish community stocked and decorated an apartment for the Lembergskys. Children from the Adass Jisroel kindergarten made welcome signs to hang on the door.

“It’s too early for them to think of what they will do next; they need to relax and get back to themselves,” said Mr. Edelman. “Many people might want to go back, but there might not be anything to go back to.”

***

POLAND

‘I can’t help but think of the irony that now Jews are fleeing into Poland.’

Of the over one million refugees who have fled Ukraine, more than half have made Poland their first stop, some with no definite plans to move on. To aid in this mass exodus, Poland’s small Jewish community has mobilized to aid as many Jews, as well as a considerable number of people from the general population, as they can.

A young Ukrainian refugee takes a rest inside a tent in Medyka, Poland, last week Sunday. (AP Photo/Markus Schreiber)

Poland’s Chief Rabbi Michael Schudrich said that each of the hundreds of stories that have come his way are “heartbreaking.”

“Many of them, too many of them, are devastated,” he said. “They are spending two or three days standing at the border. Almost everybody left a husband or a father or a son behind. These are mostly women and children, all running away from a madman. I met a frum woman the other day who came with three little kids, and she had a broken leg [from an accident] because she fell asleep after so many hours of driving, trying to get out.”

Rabbi Schudrich said last week that a plan is in the works to set up stations at border crossings themselves so that refugees can rest, eat, and find out about the resources available to them in Poland.

With funding from a long list of major international and Israeli organizations, the Polish Jewish community established an office with volunteers working around the clock to help refugees with food, shelter, medical needs, and technical hurdles they face.

Apartments have been volunteered for use by refugees in both Warsaw and Cracow. In Warsaw, a small hotel was taken over late last week, and arrangements were being made to kasher the kitchen. In the city of Lublin, the building of the Chachmei Lublin yeshivah functions as a kosher hotel run by Warsaw’s community. It has now been closed to outside guests and is being used only to house refugees.

The Jewish Community Centre (JCC) of Cracow has largely been converted into a clearinghouse to aid the constant flow of Ukrainian Jews as well as many non-Jews.

Rabbi Baumol with food to distribute at the Polish border.

“Before they got here, most of these people went through five days of Gehinnom,” said Rabbi Avi Baumol, who helps run the Cracow JCC. “I asked one woman where she came from, and she broke down crying that she had left her husband behind … What they need now is [some human kindness,] a hot meal, for some a place to stay and for others an easy way to get to the train station or airport.”

The JCC’s largest room, usually the site of a communal Shabbos seudah each Friday night, is now full of food, pharmaceuticals, diapers, and other items donated by Cracow residents to help the many refugees who arrived with only a few pieces of luggage in tow.

“The generosity of regular people has been a ray of light in this extremely dark period,” said Rabbi Baumol.

The Cracow JCC as well as the Warsaw community have brought in Russian- and Ukrainian-speaking psychologists and counselors to help people deal with the trauma and challenges they are facing. Cracow’s community is also in the process of setting up a center to help the many women who have arrived alone to get Polish-language classes and job training.

While many are en route to Israel and other locations, a large number are unsure of their next move and do not know how long they will be staying in Poland.

“Everybody is in shock. Not just them; I don’t think anybody knows what the world is going to look like,” said Rabbi Josh Ellis, who works in the Warsaw Jewish community. “I don’t think many of them are able to think about the future. So much has been destroyed.”

Rabbi Schudrich said that his focus was on giving new arrivals the resources they need and the option of housing for two months or so while they take stock of what the future might hold.

“Right now, my goal is to make these people feel safe and to let them catch their breath after going through something so horrific,” he said. “When I take a step back, I can’t help but think of the irony that now Jews are fleeing into Poland.”

***

MOLDOVA

‘They left with nothing.’

Moldova is unique among destinations for those fleeing Ukraine in that it, like Ukraine, is a former Soviet republic. A small country wedged between Ukraine and Romania, it is now serving as a refuge in desperate times.

Rabbi Zushe Abelsky, director of Chabad of Moldova, said that among the throngs of people fleeing Vladimir Putin’s vicious assault have been some 10,000 Jews. While the vast majority are passing through to other locations in Europe or to Israel, the local Jewish community has its hands full doing what it can to make their stay as comfortable as possible.

Refugees in Moldova.

“These people have had their dignity taken away from them. They left with nothing,” said Rabbi Abelsky. “They had homes and jobs; now they are coming with a suitcase and asking for a plate of food.”

Rabbi Abelsky shared the story of a fellow Chabad emissary who spent decades building up a community in Donetsk in the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine. His efforts were successful, and he had built a large shul there, only to have to abandon it and flee with his community to Kyiv in 2014 when Russian-backed separatists began fighting against the Ukrainian government. Now, he has had to flee and abandon his accomplishments a second time.

“He left a beautiful community in Donetsk with a stunning shul, built back up, and had a new shul in Kyiv, then yesterday he came running here into the unknown,” said Rabbi Abelsky.

The Moldavian Jewish community arranges for buses from border crossing points to temporary lodging and then to airports and train stations. They are also providing refugees with food, clothing, linen, and other necessities. Even though lodging is only needed for a short while in most cases, finding it has become increasingly difficult, a sign of the volume of refugees pouring into the small country.

“In a day, real estate in Moldova became hot like in Manhattan; we have to fight for every bed,” said Rabbi Abelsky. “We were trying to rent a place about 50 miles from Kishinev, and in the five minutes we waited to give them an answer, it was taken by a different group.”

Most facilities that Chabad has been successful in securing for Jews fleeing Ukraine are summer rentals in the countryside.

“We’re doing our best to provide them with what they need for a few days and to help them keep their dignity,” said Rabbi Abelsky. “We hope it will help them to feel a sense of normalcy and to start their new lives on the right foot.”

 

HUNGARY

‘There are no questions anymore; everyone is just running.’

As with all the countries which border Ukraine, Hungary has become a destination for many who from one day to the next had to run for their lives.

Rabbi Baruch Oberlander, Av Beis Din of the Kehillas Hachareidis of Budapest and director of that city’s branch of Chabad-Lubavitch, nearly a week into the war, said that the Chabad community has been involved in helping to place hundreds of Jews that have come to the country seeking refuge.

Cots are set out on a school basketball court Zahony, Hungary, to accommodate Ukrainian refugees. (AP Photo/Darko Vojinovic)

“Everybody here wants to help and they’re all doing what they can,” he said. “There’s no one central organization, we are all trying to help together.”

As is appropriate, the guest houses constructed to lodge visitors at the kever of Reb Shayale of Kerestir, zy”a, who was renowned for helping Jews in need and hachnasas orchim, are now being used to house hundreds of Jews who have crossed the border since the war began. The organizations that run the institutions are now providing beds, food, and whatever else they can to the refugees who found their way to Hungary. Last Wednesday, as Kerestir quickly maxed out its capacity, a group of 70 more people was directed to the guest house in Uhel, near the resting place of the Yismach Moshe, zy”a.

Many individual members of Budapest’s Jewish community are pitching in to help as well.

“Yesterday afternoon someone told me that she has an open apartment that we could use, and now there is a woman with her two children living there,” said Rabbi Oberlander.

Like Ukraine’s other neighboring countries, Hungary has opened its borders to Ukrainians fleeing the Russian invasion.

“Hungary deserves a lot of credit,” said Rabbi Oberlander. “They have an open door and are letting everybody in.”

Rabbi Oberlander described an emotional meeting he witnessed between a Ukrainian father who came from Eretz Yisrael to meet his children who had just made their way with their mother from Ukraine to Budapest.

“We all had tears in our eyes,” he said. “The father and the boys came to Minchah-Maariv, and you should have heard the kids scream Amein, yehei Shmei Rabbah!”

No matter the number that have already passed through, Rabbi Oberlander anticipates that, sadly, there will be many more to come.

“On the two days of the invasion, I got a few calls from people weighing if they should come or not,” he said. “There are no questions anymore; everyone is just running.”

***

A coordinated effort in chaotic times’ — An interview with Mr. Eric Goldstein, CEO of  UJA-Federation of New York, on the relief efforts on the part of his organization.

By Yossi Golds

The United Nations said last week Sunday that some 1.5 million Ukrainians have already left the country and are refugees. This is the biggest refugee crisis in Europe since the end of the Holocaust.

Poland’s border guard agency said Sunday that over 922,000 refugees have crossed the border from Ukraine since Feb. 24, when Russia launched its invasion.

A nation of some 38 million people, Poland is receiving the largest number of refugees among Ukraine’s neighbors. Some who entered Poland have continued traveling to other countries.

We spoke to Mr. Goldstein a few days after he traveled to Poland to finalize the relief efforts.

 

What scenes did you witness on the ground?

I wasn’t in Ukraine; the closest I got was near the Poland-Ukraine border, but from talking to people, to the refugees, things aren’t good at all. There is mass devastation. People have nowhere to go — refugees and displaced people in the literal sense of the word.

Eric Goldstein, CEO of UJA-Federation (Larry Busacca/Getty Images)

And many of them are Jews.

Right. For some, it’s unfortunately déjà vu, the elderly Holocaust survivors, who had thought that they would never witness these scenes again. It’s horrible to think about it for those survivors.

The Ukrainian Jews who make it across the border —and we’ve all heard about how difficult that has become — are glad to see our representatives, the volunteers of the Joint and other organizations, holding up signs with the logos that they recognize, and they know where to go. It’s a coordinated effort on behalf of all the Jewish groups in these chaotic times.

Can you describe to us some of the work that the Joint has done?

They have rented hundreds of hotel rooms for the Jewish refugees in hotels in Poland. They told me they’ll be taking something in the range of 700 rooms!

How do these organizations get all this done in no time?

My predecessor in the UJA said after the 9/11 attacks, “We were there on 9/11 because we were there on 9/10.” That is an amazing line. And we can use it once again in this current situation.

We are there now in March because we were there in February. We were tending to something like 40,000 cases a week.

So while obviously this is a step up, it’s not like we are sitting idle throughout the year.

What’s the plan for the future?

As of now, it’s still early days in this war. No one knows where this will lead us. As the smoke clears, literally, we will be able to know if and when people will be returning to Ukraine, and of course they will [require] lots of assistance; who knows what their houses will look like after all this.

We will also need to support the refugees moving forward. It’s no quick fix ahead of us; this could even take years. But we will be there, continuing to assist any and every Jew in their time of need.

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